Speak to someone who works political campaigns, and it isn’t long before they start sounding like a roadie listing their tours: Doug Jones, Alabama senate, 2018; John Edwards for President, 2008; Karen Bass, California congress, 2013. They hardly ever sign year-long leases, and seldom own what can’t be moved in a car. It’s hard for us laypeople to fathom just how much of electoral politics are built on the campaign version of an adrenaline junkie. The line between political corruption and rational action is a lot thinner than we like to think, and Richard Z. Santos’s Trust Me whiplashes through it.
Trust Me primarily follows Charles O’Connell, a disgraced campaign PR man trying to restart his life after a lucky job offer for a construction company building an airport in Santa Fe. A tangled web awaits him, though, when the expensive project is halted after a Native American tribe makes a claim on the land. O’Connell’s employer is Cody Branch, a brash, ultra-wealthy businessman, who controls the lives of our other point-of-view characters as well, including a construction worker, Branch’s personal security guard, and Charles’ ex-wife living in the area. Their hearts are honest, trying to make child support or pay a loved one’s medical bills, but they must compromise their values to do so. Branch’s catalog of homes, market investments, and fleet of town cars stand in stark contrast to their sparse, frugal lives. The entire novel orbits around Branch in a way that evokes R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries: a powerful, dangerous force presses on our characters, but is ultimately out of any of those characters’ sphere of influence.
Branch’s enigmatic personality forms Trust Me’s magnetic center. Santos writes, “Cody Branch doesn’t have to lie about what he wants,” and then later, “Cody’s not dangerous…But the money is.” Branch is so rich he can afford to be compulsively honest. The people who surround Branch have a greater interest in getting the airport project back underway than Branch does. If it fails, Branch will remain wealthy. It’s his employees—as it so often is—who need the paycheck. One Branch employee says, “Everyone’s a hair away from corruption at all times,” and Trust Me dramatizes the tragedy that so often “everyone” excludes the most powerful, and is instead well-meaning, average people.
Santos leans hard into his skill as a dialogue musician. I estimate forty percent of this novel is speech, and it accounts for much of the novel’s in-scene dynamism: Conversations skip beats, turn sour, spring to life, and—more than anything else—illustrate power dynamics among desperate people. Charles is a PR professional, and the primary tension within any scene is a character conducting PR through conversation. They’re often forced to navigate word choice and balance tone so delicately, it’s as if they have to do handstands on a pinhead to keep a job or see their son. Refreshing are the too-seldom appearances of Cody Branch and Charles’s old politics buddy, Thompson, men so entrenched in power and place that they can speak calmly and freely, forming magnetic poles that ground our characters in more honest, dispassionate appraisals of reality.
Santos’s commitment to the tension and pace is Trust Me’s triumph, and also its greatest weakness. The reader is never convinced they could articulate a clear picture of Cody Branch’s tangled web, reflecting the helplessness of our characters against the current of the airport project’s shifting reality. New details that felt important pages ago are obscured by the next ones. It occurs to me the point of craving breath you can’t catch might be the point, but that doesn’t change that it’s sometimes tiring to operate at such breakneck speed. It’s not that Santos can’t do it—he flexes lyrical muscle in the closing chapters, like when a character is dying and he hallucinates his lover appearing: “Then she curled up on his chest and sunk into his bones, and he followed her. Down. Down there, finally. Where everything was quiet.” Living inside this moment is so beautiful, I can’t help wishing it happened more often.
Where America expects genius or malice in politics, there’s often just a human being with the same bad habits, blind spots, and bills as anyone else, and Trust Me aims at an unfortunate reality: In politics, a person’s decisions seldom just impact themselves. Santos’s debut is an important glimpse into the interwoven, chaotic lives of those who build the soapboxes upon which public figures speak, and like one question posed to Charles, Trust Me’s pages come “as fast as a needle.” Try to keep up.
Publisher: Arte Público Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Reviewed by Ben McCormick